Pre-Christmas Carol a Hit

Among the brightest stars of this television season have been the Arizona Diamondbacks, Jennifer Aniston, and Carol Burnett, whose luminosity predates by several decades that of both the baseball club and Mrs. Brad Pitt.

On November 26, the last Monday of the four-week sweeps period, CBS's 10 p.m. special, "The Carol Burnett Show: Show Stoppers," drew nearly 30 million viewers, a blockbuster success by today's ratings standards. In fact, it was, according to Bill Carter of the New York Times, the season's fourth-most-watched program, behind only Game 7 of the World Series and two episodes of "Friends." "Show Stoppers" consisted of bloopers and other outtakes from Burnett's CBS variety hour, which ran from 1967 until '78, intercut with present-day quips and reflections from Burnett and cast members Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, and Vicki Lawrence.

Think about it: The fourth-most-popular show of the season replayed scenes from a series which not only began but had almost ended its eleven-year run before anyone in the vaunted 18-to-24-year-old demographic was even born.

Carter reported that the special's Nielsen success "stunned most television-industry executives." Especially stunning, it seems, were the ratings among those who were, at most, young adults when "The Carol Burnett Show" left the air. "I knew we'd get plenty of the viewers over 50," CBS president Leslie Moonves said, "but I didn't think younger people would be all that familiar with the show." The special wound up drawing close to 13 million viewers ages 18-49, which, according to Carter, is roughly four times CBS's usual Monday 10 p.m. performance in that demographic.

It's always the Hollywood executives who are surprised when a family program attracts a huge audience, or when its appeal isn't limited to the middle-aged and older. That's because some in Hollywood refuse to accept that there is a widespread, longstanding hunger for family shows, to which the networks' response for many years has been to offer a bite here and there, and on extremely rare occasions, as with "Touched By an Angel" and "7th Heaven," a meal.

That the ratings for "Show Stoppers" confirmed the hunger for family fare doesn't mean "Show Stoppers" was entirely suitable for family viewing. It is, sadly, a sign of the times that even on this show the producers felt it necessary to toss in the occasional overt sexual joke - Korman remarked that for him to use Viagra would be "like putting a brand-new flagpole on a condemned building" - and, as befits a bloopers-and-outtakes show, bleeped obscenity.

Even so, the racy material on the Burnett special just doesn't hold a candle to the raunchiness of today's prime-time TV. There's a significant difference between bawdy, which the special sometimes was, and graphic, which so many modern series, especially sitcoms, tend to be. Next to the latter, the former easily can appear wholesome.

Take the "Friends" episode from last season that went miles past Korman's Viagra gag. Joey, an actor, is up for a movie role which requires frontal nudity. He is circumcised; the character he wishes to play explicitly isn't. What to do? Joey's friend Monica comes to the rescue by fashioning some fake foreskins for him to choose from. One's made of baloney, another of suede, but Joey opts for yet another, a Silly Putty model, which falls off soon after he drops his pants for the director.

CBS executive vice president David Poltrack told the Washington Post's Tom Shales that these days, television viewers want "warm and funny [programs]...Warmth and humor resonate with the public right now." Those qualities, which caused so many to tune in to the Burnett special, are not incompatible with an off-color joke now and then, as long as it's not at a time when youngsters are likely to be watching, but they are incompatible with the aggressively raunchy material in which "Friends," "Boston Public," "Dawson's Creek" - all of which air not at 10 or even 9 but at 8 p.m. - and scads of other series specialize.

As to whether the amount of, in Shales' words, "cozy, pleasant, and positive" prime-time programming might increase soon, Poltrack said, "Warm and funny is not that easy to do." That is, ultimately, the problem: the real lack of producing and writing talent in Hollywood, especially where comedy is concerned, which helps explain why family sitcoms are rarer than family dramas. Right now, only one prime-time comedy - the WB's "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" - is family-friendly, while several dramas, including "Touched By an Angel," "7th Heaven," and the Pax network's "Doc," qualify.

Maybe, someday, Hollywood will accept the reality that much of America is clamoring for a return to decency - and art - in entertainment. They'd see the proof with many more successes like the Burnett special if only they'd let the Carol Burnett-level talent back in their shops.